There's a uniquely American network that's growing faster than John Malone's TCI ever did; that's even more global than Ted Turner's CNN; and is light years more interactive than Barry Diller's QVC. It's called the Internet. Advertisers and agencies take note: It has the potential to become the next great mass/personal medium. No one really "owns" it; no one really "manages" it. Nonetheless, over the past five years the Internet has exploded into a multimedia phenomenon that deserves the serious attention of anyone who wants to understand what the future has to look like.
Originally designed 25 years ago to be the computer network for the Pentagon's research community, Internet has evolved into the most important and far-reaching computer network in the world. Think of it as a network of networks, a medium that enables networks and their computers to talk to each other. Virtually every major university, corporation and government agency in the world is on it. Now that it's being privatized, the Internet is rapidly opening up to the tens of millions of personal computers. Forget Prodigy, CompuServe and America Online. What the world's telecommunications networks are to telephones, Internet is becoming for personal computers.
Pick a media metaphor, any metaphor--direct mail, telemarketing, broadcasting, narrowcasting, interactive multimedia--and the Internet is flexible enough to handle it. Want to put the L.L. Bean catalogue online? And let people place custom orders with their American Express cards? Why not advertising-sponsored electronic mail? Technically, Internet could do it today. Want to do a direct electronic mailing? Electronic classifieds? Interactive animated brochures? It's already happening.
Can the Internet handle interactive, high-resolution, full-motion video? No--but neither can TCI or Time Warner. Just wait three years. Chances are that cable will learn more from observing Internet than the other way around. The simple truth is that Internet is a living, breathing, global network that for the moment remains untouched and untapped by the likes of Murdoch, Malone, Turner, or even that nerd di tutti nerds, Bill Gates.
Internet is a medium just aching for its own Bill Paley--some aspiring mogul who can redefine this hodgepodge of globally interconnected machine intelligences into a formidable commercial medium that commands premium prices from traditional advertisers and unconventional advertisers alike. Once advertisers come onto the network, Internet usage (already growing 20% a month compounded) will skyrocket even faster, because more consumers will come on board. Of course, advertising will subsidize network growth for computers just as it did for radio and television.
A few entrepreneurs already have begun to tap into Internet's vast commercial potential. With sponsorship in part from Sun Microsystems, the Silicon Valley workstation giant, Virginia-based Carl Malamud launched Internet "talk radio" this month. No, this isn't bits and bytes of text on your computer screen--it's actual digital radio with stereo sound. If your computer has a speaker, it can be transformed into a radio. The neat aspect is that you can capture only the snippets of the show that you want and file them into your PC for retrieval at your leisure. No plans yet to get Rush Limbaugh.
Of course, if your PC can be a radio, why not a television set? The answer is that the rise of the Internet may well be a driving force in making tomorrow's PCs even more TV-like. Remember when the early days of VCRs featured pornography as programming? Well, Internet has files listed under alt.sex that let you retrieve dirty digital pictures. If you have the right PC, you can even retrieve the animated ones. And where "adult" services begin, mainstream programming is sure to follow.
The point is that advertisers have low-cost access to a global, interactive network today. With very little money--and a few neurons of imagination-- advertisers from Apple to AT&T to GM to Citibank could do things that could literally transform key aspects of their business. Unfortunately for their customers, most of these companies have more money than neurons.
That's why the Internet is like the early days of radio. The technology is there and accessible; more people are logging on; big ideas are just waiting to be born. It's exciting. My bet? By the end of 1996, at least two major advertising agencies will be designing ads and recommending Internet buys for at least a dozen of their Fortune 1000 clients.
Fax comments to Michael Schrage at 212-536-1416.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)